Changing VA’s culture harder than selling soap

Bob McDonald is about to learn that fixing a government agency can be a lot harder than selling soap.

The retired head of Procter & Gamble is President Obama’s pick to lead the Veterans Affairs Department. Selling Tide and Pantene is one thing, fixing an agency dirtied by scandal is another. The VA is not a mess that can be wiped away with a paper towel, not even P&G’s Bounty brand.

“Bob is an expert at making organizations better,” Obama said Monday, adding the obvious: “This is not going to be an easy assignment.”


President Barack Obama shakes hands with Robert McDonald, his nominee for VA secretary. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque).

It’s not going to be easy because the VA is plagued with a “corrosive culture.”

That’s Rob Nabors’s term for a situation confirmed in numerous other reports.  Nabors, the White House deputy chief of staff detailed to the VA, submitted a report on the agency to Obama last week. Much of it deals with a toxic environment for employees that has been festering for years.

Personnel problems “are seriously impacting morale and, by extension, the timeliness of health care,” Nabors wrote in the report’s summary. It pointed to “distrust between some VA employees and management, a history of retaliation toward employees raising issues, and a lack of accountability across all grade levels.”

 

Personnel problems are seriously impacting morale and, by extension, the timeliness of health care.

 

— Rob Nabors

Culture, good or bad, can be entrenched. Changing it can be tough.

“But it’s also not impossible,” said John Palguta, a vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, a good government group that studies the federal workforce.

Palguta listed steps McDonald can take, if he is confirmed by the Senate, to make the VA a much better place for employees and customers. It “starts with leadership,” Palguta said.

Leadership sets the tone and can really change an agency’s culture. It’s happened other places. But while leadership starts from the top, the top leaders must transmit the proper culture and values throughout the organization, especially to first level supervisors who deal directly with staffers.

The values must include a welcoming reception for whistleblowers. Now the VA has a reputation as their enemy No. 1.

VA’s whistleblower caseload “is growing almost every day,” said Carolyn Lerner, the U.S. special counsel. Her Office of Special Counsel handles whistleblower cases from across the government. More than a quarter of all whistleblower disclosure cases that OSC says have “substantial likelihood” of being valid are VA cases, according to Lerner. She also said the VA has more of those cases than the Defense Department, which has about twice as many employees.

Read more in the Federal Diary online later Tuesday and in Wednesday’s Washington Post.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012.
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